Japan's lock on Consumer Reports' vehicle reliability rankings is starting to ease.
Three Japanese brands — Lexus, Toyota and Acura — took the top spots in this year's survey, and seven of the top 10 brands are Japanese.
But three non-Japanese brands — Audi, Volvo and GMC — cracked the top 10. And the magazine announced Monday it's not recommending that consumers buy 2014 models of the Honda Accord V6 and Nissan Altima sedans, two of Japan's top sellers, because of poor reliability scores. Two other Japanese mainstays, the Toyota Camry and Toyota RAV4, won't be recommended because they flunked a frontal crash test from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
That's a blow that could impact sales. Consumer Reports' recommendations are frequently cited among the top reasons people buy particular cars and trucks.
Yonkers, N.Y.-based Consumer Reports predicts the reliability of 2014 model year cars and trucks based on a survey of subscribers who own vehicles from current or prior model years. This year, the survey questioned the owners of 1.1 million vehicles.
Problems with infotainment systems, from frozen touch screens to poorly performing voice-operated navigation systems, were frequent complaints. Jake Fisher, Consumer Reports' automotive testing director, said electronic problems may even be underreported, since some drivers find the systems so confusing they don't use them. German cars tended to have the best infotainment systems.
The 2014 Subaru Forester got the top score for predicted reliability, but the magazine noted that the 2014 Forester had only been on sale for a few weeks in the spring when owners were surveyed, so there wasn't much time for errors to crop up. The Subaru Legacy was the top-performing midsize car.
Electric cars and hybrids generally performed well, but the Ford C-Max Energi plug-in hybrid got the worst reliability scores. Ford and its luxury Lincoln brand were near the bottom of the rankings because of customer complaints about their glitch-prone touchscreen dashboard systems and lower-than-expected fuel economy numbers.
The key to reliability is a conservative approach to vehicle redesigns. The brands that do best, like Toyota and Honda, often use time-tested engines, transmissions and other parts from prior models in their newer cars, Fisher said. Automakers with new engines or other untested features in their new cars — like Ford or Cadillac — tend to do worse.
"When you redesign cars from the ground up, you're going to expect those issues," Fisher told The Associated Press.
Brands with many older models, like GMC and Volvo, also tend to do better.